The main character of Gavin McCrea's first novel is not a literary invention but an actual historical figure, the live-in companion of a man who co-authored one of the 19th century's most famous political tracts. But before we delve into the details of Lizzie Burns' biography, let's just for a moment appreciate the irreverence and vivacity with which she tells her story.
Simply put, Lizzie is as spirited a narrator as a reader could hope to encounter. As channeled by McCrea, she can turn a humble sentiment into an extraordinary image, and if expressive language is your thing, you need to read "Mrs. Engels."
Observing that her mate likes to snack, Lizzie says that he's "always liable for a man-faint if he doesn't have his in-betweens." Concerning her unwillingness to tolerate a heavy drinker, she explains, "I'll not be ballyragged by a soaker for the rest of my days." Even the almighty feels her impertinent sting. When a priest tells her she that "must show Him you know you're a sinner," Lizzie replies, "Well, if He doesn't know that for Himself, Father, He's deaf as well as blind."
I could easily fill out the rest of this review with example after example of Lizzie's colorful narration, but there's the matter of the novel's plot. What is "Mrs. Engels" about? The short answer: a courageous outsider who rallies whenever adversity strikes.
Although the title suggests otherwise, Lizzie spends most of the book as the unwedded lover of Frederick Engels, who with Karl Marx wrote "The Communist Manifesto." Her marital status is just one characteristic that makes her feel offbeat.
Another difference: Lizzie is illiterate. This means that she and Engels have very different routines; he's someone to whom "naught in the world has worth unless it's written down," she says. On top of that, she's an Irishwoman living in England, and a longtime resident of working-class Manchester trying to acclimate herself to a new home in an affluent London neighborhood. She stands out and she knows it.
It's the early 1870s, and Lizzie's on-again, off-again acclimation project is set against a backdrop of political intrigue. When the brief reign of a socialist government comes to a violent end in Paris, the co-writers of the "Manifesto" are blamed for their role in inspiring the revolutionaries; death threats begin to arrive at the Engels home. And when Lizzie's ex-boyfriend tries to enlist her help in the Irish independence movement, she's forced to consider where her priorities reside, and whether she's forsaken her heritage in order to secure a tranquil existence. Along the way, she'll be challenged by illness, intruders and unforeseen revelations about family and friends alike.
While there's no dearth of action, plot is secondary to character development in this resonant novel. McCrea, who was born in Ireland and lives part-time in England, has reached into history and constructed a rich fictional saga around a woman most American readers won't have spent any time at all thinking about. Historians know a lot more about Engels than they do about Elizabeth Burns, but McCrea has rendered her unforgettable, a model of resolve with an extraordinary narrative voice.
His is the first novel from Catapult, a publisher launched by the creative team behind Electric Literature, a highly regarded online literary journal. With "Mrs. Engels," they've jumped out to a great start.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.